Apple is once again on the cutting edge of PC design, reportedly ditching traditional storage controllers and turning to motherboard mounted flash storage for the new MacBook Air. Although most discussion so far has focused on the merits of this particular solution, the repercussions of such a move go far beyond Apple’s sub notebook and point to a new era when SCSI and ATA interfaces no longer dominate.
What Apple May Do
We will not know for sure until reviewers get their hands on the expected MacBook Air refresh later this month, but rumors suggest that Apple will do away with the SATA controller when they moved to Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPU architecture.
Readers of this blog may recall that Apple previously switched to an all SSD storage lineup in the last MacBook Air refresh. This system used “blade” SSDs, but these include a traditional SATA controller and interface to the motherboard which is a substantial performance bottleneck. Reviews show that the MacBook Air, while quick, does not reach the level of I/O performance theoretically possible from flash memory.
If Apple integrates the flash controller and NAND modules directly onto the motherboard (and logically attached to the PCI express bus), performance will improve dramatically. Users of enterprise PCIe SSDs have already seen the incredible performance that these solutions are capable of. It is not exaggeration to say that a PCIe SSD is as much of an upgrade over a SATA or SAS SSD as they are over a traditional rotational hard disk drive.
Moving from an SATA SSD to a true integrated storage design is not a trivial task. Flash memory controllers are still required to manage the unique characteristics of the chips involved, and the operating system drivers must be modified to address memory directly or through these new controllers.
Apple is ideally suited to making this shift, since they control both hardware and software design. It would be much more difficult for HP, IBM, or Dell to make this move, since they would need to coordinate with Microsoft to produce a successful product. Conversely, Microsoft would be hard-pressed to demand that their hardware OEMs make such a change since it would require extensive engineering and testing on their part.
If Apple does indeed abandon a traditional SATA interface for storage on the MacBook Air, they may consider doing the same across their entire product portfolio. The iOS devices (the iPhone, iPod, iPad, and Apple TV) have already made this shift, another engineering advantage for Apple. One imagines a next-generation line of MacBook Pro and iMac computers with lightning fast SSD in addition to traditional SATA optical and hard disk drives.
These new computers from Apple will perform so much better than similarly specified Windows PCs that the entire industry will be forced to make a similar shift. But Apple already holds a dominant position in the NAND flash memory industry thanks to the purchasing might that comes from iOS. This puts every other computer maker at a disadvantage both financially and in terms of order fulfillment.
As techies moan about the lack of upgrade options presented by a soldered in SSD, they miss the bigger industry picture. For too long, computers have been held back by traditional SCSI and ATA controllers. These are both a performance bottleneck and an impediment to innovation. A shift to an integrated PCI storage model makes much sense tactically and strategically for Apple, and I expect that these rumors are true. Furthermore, this move will put even more stress on Windows PC makers. Once again, Apple is outmaneuvering the competition.